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Smarten up for your career growth

It always helps if you are well-groomed and project a positive image to the world, writes Sonali Majumder.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2006 14:45 IST

There's really no sure-shot formula for success in business. So does the magic prescription lie in a company's band of talented people or innovative products? Or, is something still missing from this equation?

An increasing number of companies are recognising the fact that in order to gain some competitive advantage, they will have to make sure that their people know how to handle themselves at work and how to relate with their customers outside the organisation and with their peers inside.

From showing empathy and optimism and self-awareness to knowing what's going on around them, there are some competencies that make up an integral part of a progressive organisation. These and more fall under the umbrella of soft-skills.

Soft-skills are crucial not just for a person's growth but also that of the company's. Otherwise, how could you explain the differential growth curves of two people with the same qualifications working for the same company, yet one is very successful and the other only moderately so?

"The answer," says Ajay Oberoi, Senior Vice-President, Aptech Ltd., "lies in their different hold over their soft-skills." In a constantly changing and challenging work environment, to gain a competitive advantage, employees need to know how to handle themselves at work and how to relate with their customers and peers.

Mind you, these skills are vital not only for a front-office job, say as a receptionist, who is expected to wear a smile and be polite at all times, but also in the back-office environment, as well. After all, front-office jobs are more people-centric and they require you to be at your best, always - even in terms of your appearance.

"It always helps if you are well-groomed and project a positive image to the world," says Rohit Kumar, Joint Managing Director, Ikan Relocation Services. In the service industry, in particular, where the back-office team has to cater to all manner of customers, a person always has to be at his best. "In our industry where you are involved with relocating people, including foreigners, you just cannot afford to lose your cool. We have administration officers at help desks virtually swamped by calls from aggrieved customers, requesting a new telephone connection or complaining about their malfunctioning generators or even gyms that charge exorbitant fees! Our team has to learn to be patient with such customers. There are no two ways about it," says Kumar.

The importance of soft skills may also be gauged from the following incident, wherein an HR Manager refused to take a person on board because he was impolite on the phone. Says the Manager, "Even while this person was making inquiries about one of our job postings, it became apparent that he had little interest in the job. He said something about 'bad and short-sighted' employers and I got completely put off by his caustic remarks and verbal tirade. In my mind, I was convinced I would never call this man for an interview. His 'soft-skills' needed a lot of polish."

Unfortunately, most graduate business schools don't teach you how to cultivate your soft-skills. While courses such as Business Writing and Public Speaking are now being offered, there is still no course titled, "The Art of Listening to your Customer." A professor will definitely give you good grades if you know the management theories but will not up your grade if you are able to deal with a difficult situation or fix an unexpected problem. Yet you get maximum accolades when you deal with someone with a soft touch than with your extensive knowledge about a particular subject," says Dr RL Bhatia, CEO, Fun and Joy at Work.

HR experts concur that soft-skills can be inculcated. "I could hardly write a sentence in English, so all I did was read and read and have now come miles from the place where I had begun," says Bhatia. Agrees Rajeev Narayan of Moser Baer, "No one's born perfect. Although in India, we are partial to degrees and diplomas, there's also equal stress on personality development." That said, a person does not realise that he needs improvement till he takes a long, hard and uncritical look at himself.

While most American companies invest at least one to two per cent of their budget on soft-skills training, in India the spend is much lower at 0.5 to one per cent. Yet it has been estimated that the soft-skills training is a Rs 800 crore market in India and ancillary support services like management videos are worth Rs 340 crore.

"This sort of training can be built into vocational training, case management studies, mentor talk, whatever, but it does need to be incorporated," says Oberoi. Some managers believe that companies should plough back at least 10 per cent of their profits into soft-skills training.

At Pipal Research, a Chicago-based company engaged in research resources, the focus is squarely on "professional development and mentoring." Says Manoj S Jain, Founder and CEO, Pipal Research, "When analysts start at Pipal, we assign them a mentor who tracks their overall professional development. Later, the HR Manager uses the mentor's observations, other research managers' feedback to create a development agenda for the analyst. The system definitely works; and works well."

If it works for Pipal, it should surely work across the board, shouldn't it?